Saturday, 2:15 PM
(Globe file photo/1997)
By Tom Long, Globe Correspondent, and Donovan Slack and John R. Ellement, Globe Staff
Albert L. "Dapper" O'Neil, the irascible politician who charmed and offended for 28 years on the Boston City Council, died early this morning at a nursing home in West Roxbury. He was 87.
After a political career that spanned 50 years, O'Neil was one of the last links to an era of colorful, personalized politics that defined Boston in the first half of the 20th century. He served on the Boston Licensing Board and was a political operative for legendary Mayor James Michael Curley.
“It’s the end of an era in Boston politics with the passing of Dapper O’Neil,” Mayor Thomas M. Menino said this morning. “He was the greatest storyteller there ever was. The real question is whether all those stories are true.”
His friend and former driver, Councilor Stephen Murphy, said that O’Neil died in his sleep after years of deteriorating health.
"The great irony of Dapper was his kindness and generosity to so many people,” Murphy said this morning. “At the same time, he fearlessly and deliberately violated the rules of political correctness. He'd say, ‘Watch me get them going.’ "
Flamboyantly conservative, Mr. O'Neil was defined more by the enemies he made than his political views. At various times, he railed against feminists, gays, and immigrants. He made a career out of his opposition to school desegregation, affirmative action, and other government initiatives he considered social engineering.
He was the only one of 13 city councilors to vote against a local ban on assault weapons and the city's human rights ordinance, which prohibited discrimination against gay men and lesbians.
In the process, Mr. O'Neil seemed to delight in his ability to enrage liberals, who considered him insensitive at best and a bigot at worst. But his stands on issues served to solidify his conservative political base.
In the 1970s, he lambasted "hippies" from a bullhorn on the back of a pickup truck circling Boston Common. In 1990, after viewing nude photographs at the Robert Mapplethorpe exhibit at the Institute of Contemporary Art, he said, "This country's going down the drain. And while there's guys like me in it, I'll put a stop to some of this."
During the 1992 Dorchester Day Parade, he was captured on a home video exclaiming, "I thought I was in Saigon for Chrissakes," while he passed through a Southeast Asian part of the city.
Born in Boston he graduated from Roxbury Memorial High School. He attended Suffolk University Law School, but left before graduating to serve in the Army during World War II.
He began his political career as a teenager handing out leaflets for James Michael Curley. He was later the driver for Endicott Peabody, who, as governor in the 1960s, rewarded Mr. O'Neil with a seat on the city's licensing board.
In a story published in the Globe on Nov. 11, 1999, when he lost his City Council election bid to Michael Flaherty, Boston historian Thomas H. O'Connor said, "This is the last hurrah not merely for a man but for the politicking he represents."
He said Mr. O'Neil's career endured, "largely through the kinds of loyalties he built up over 30 years, from people for whom he'd done favors, and they'd never forget him, and they'd talk about him to their relatives. He built a political career on a system of local patronage," said O'Connor.
"Dapper was colorful and controversial and irascible and shocking," he said. "And in a perverse way, I think there were people who found that style of politics refreshing, shocking. He was willing to take a stand."
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